11 The Conference
From Jan Smuts' Rise To Fame Part 1 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

KRUGER looked on Smuts' efforts at clearing up and reforming with some of the same patient benevolence with which he accepted the bribe-taking and concession-selling of his relatives and supporters. Internal affairs were of value, but the quarrel with England was far more important to him. He was sure that a crisis was at hand: that England meant to annex the Transvaal; and he was as determined as ever to defend its independence, and also to drive the English out of South Africa.

The English Government had sent as High Commissioner of the Cape Sir Alfred Milner, a clear-headed, strong-willed man with a sound sense of values. Milner quickly realised the facts. He saw, as both Rhodes and Kruger had seen, that South Africa was an indivisible whole. He saw also that Kruger planned to make it Dutch. He had no desire to annex the Transvaal, but he was equally determined that South Africa should remain in the Empire and that the Dutch Republics should not sweep out the English. The English had as much right there as the Dutch. He saw that Kruger was bent on making the Dutch supreme end that he would not compromise. The English must therefore remain paramount. He did not want war, but he faced the fact that there came times in history when war alone seemed able to decide a problem. If this was such a time, he would not shrink from war. He set to work to stiffen the local English and the Government in England. He believed that if at once, and without delay or hesitation, England put out a strong hand, all would be well and Kruger would draw back. He asked for more troops to be sent out, but the English Government wavered and hesitated.

Kruger also continued to stiffen his people, and in this he needed Smuts, with his knowledge of England, his honesty and his energy, and his intense hostility — the hostility of the newly converted — to the English. And Smuts, with the same grim intensity that he put into his internal reforms, worked for Kruger's policy.

All through the early months of 1899 the friction between the two sides increased. Rhodes was out of it, Jameson's Raid had destroyed him; he had tried to stage a come-back, but neither Dutch nor English would have him. From Cape Town he still roared, but he had no bite to back his roaring. But once again two great figures dominated South Africa. This time it was Milner the Englishman and Kruger — and Milner was of finer metal than Rhodes. It was now not Rhodes the rich man, his life complicated and deified with his business aims, his unpleasant friends, and his questionable methods, the immense bully blustering his way towards his great vision, but the quiet, dignified, high-collared, reserved official, whose vision was as wide as that of Rhodes, but whose driving force was his sense of duty, who neither corrupted others nor was corruptible himself, and who was the representative of the might of the British Empire, who now opposed Paul Kruger.

Previously war had been a possibility; now it began to become a probability, and many tried to prevent the catastrophe. The Dutch of the Cape did not want war. Since Jameson's Raid they had been much in sympathy with Kruger; but they looked on war as folly. A Liberal Government, they said, would soon replace the Conservatives in England, and the Liberal leaders had promised the Dutch what they wanted. Hofmeyr, Schreiner, and de Villiers, who was the Chief Justice of the Cape, tried to reason with Kruger. De Villiers made a special journey to Pretoria and saw Reitz and Smuts as well, but reported failure. "I am afraid," he said, "that neither Reitz nor Smuts is the man for the present crisis." Steyn of the Free State tried his hand and at last persuaded Kruger to meet Milner. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary in England, gladly agreed. A Conference was arranged to take place in the Free State, in its capital at Bloemfontein. There was still the possibility of compromise and agreement.

An office had been arranged in the railway department, a freshly whitewashed room — for the offices were newly built — bare except for a large table and some chairs.

Across the table the heads of the delegations faced each other: Milner carefully dressed, tall, erect, dignified, and vigorous, the Proconsul of a great Empire, with clear-cut features and the voice and the manner of an aristocrat. Kruger sagged down, crumpled up in his chair, his faded frock-coat buttoned up tight, his enormous body grown shapeless, slack, unwieldy, and monstrous with age and disease, a fringe of unkempt beard below his chin, his face worn into deep creases and lines, his eyes narrow and crafty, the mouth large and crooked, repellent in its ugliness, the ugliness of a worn gargoyle, yet giving the man a sense of vast strength and determination; a rugged, brutal, powerful, dirty old peasant, yet a personality accustomed to power and to being obeyed.

Round them sat or moved their staff: the English stiff and formal — Colonel Hanbury-Williams, Lord Belgrave, two secretaries from Government House in Cape Town, and a clerk to take notes. The Boers rough and untidy — Schalk Burger of the Executive Council; Wolinarans and Smuts, who was neater than the others, from the Transvaal Government; some officials with technical knowledge; and Fischer, a member of the Executive Council of the Orange Free State, acting as interpreter and general go-between.

Milner drove straight in with vigorous, definite demands and arguments; Kruger threatened and then side-stepped, avoided, and started to bargain, but as the day wore on he grew tired. Age had sapped his mental as well as his physical vigour. He failed to concentrate or to register. He began to ramble. He fell back for safety on stock phrases and obstinate repetitions of the same arguments, or he retreated into irritated silence. Often he lost the thread of the argument, but always at his elbow, prompting him, was Smuts — lean, cadaverous, pugnacious, vibrating energy, putting new energy into Kruger and stiffening his obstinacy: Milner advanced an argument. Before Fischer had finished translating it, Smuts had facts and data to disprove it and was whispering the reply to Kruger, for with his knowledge of English and English ways of thought he knew the English case before it was stated.

As Kruger tired, Smuts took up the argument. He began to answer for the President. He tried to hoodwink Milner with clever arguments: he tried to anger him by innuendoes and veiled insults and so goad him into making some rash statement or fatal admission. Milner remained quiet and inflexible. He was as clever as Smuts and far wiser. He had none of Smuts' craftiness, but he was not taken in, and he was direct. At last he too grew tired, but of Smuts' methods. He ignored Smuts — and he was able to ignore a man with an icy dignity that hurt pride. Smuts persisted. Milner cut him short: he was dealing with His Honour the President and not with his underlings: he would have no truck with this little Dutch lawyer. Smuts grew angry. Milner continued to ignore him, and Smuts, grey with suppressed fury, returned to prompting Kruger. He tried to trip Milner up. He produced a proposal that seemed to meet Milner's demands that the Uitlanders should have the right to naturalise within a reasonable time: but within the proposal was a paragraph that destroyed its whole value. Milner put his finger at once on that paragraph.

It was a battle of brain and determination. Kruger, with Smuts giving him backbone, refused to give way. Fischer, who, although he was benign in looks and appeared to be neutral, hated the English, and increased the difficulties. The Conference came to a deadlock and broke up and Milner realised that the Dutch would fight.

In England Milner was criticised by the Liberal Opposition for breaking off the Conference. "He should," said John Morley, a leading Liberal, to Joseph Chamberlain — "he should have shared his tobacco pouch with Paul Kruger, and all would have been well." It was a dangerous, unreal remark that did great damage. It helped to weaken the support from England which Milner needed. It was the remark of a clever man and accepted by lesser men, both of them out of mental laziness and to conceal their ignorance, for a less rigid and more cordial attitude from Milner would have had no effect on Kruger and his supporters except to make them think that England was afraid and they had only to bully to win. Neither Morley nor his Liberal friends understood Kruger, or the Dutch, or the facts; and their attitude of sympathy with the Dutch only increased the possibility of war.

Smuts left the Conference in a rage. His personal pride was hurt — and his personal pride and dignity were very easi1y hurt — by Milner's quiet ignoring of him. He had despised his fellow-undergraduates at Cambridge and they had disliked him; he had not got on with the English in the Cape; Rhodes had played him false. The Englishmen with their Jew friends, who had come to the Rand and stolen its wealth, he hated. He hated them all. They were all false and treacherous. Milner, his Oxford manner, his haughty disdain, and his precise, methodical staff, drove him to fury. He returned to Pretoria with set chin, made bitter and waspish by the hurt to his dignity, and determined more than ever to work for war.

As Kruger drove away in his carriage, those with him saw that he stared straight ahead, and down his face streamed tears. Once during the Conference he had shown intense emotion. At a reply of Milner's he had flung his hands flat down on to the table and cried out, as if suddenly hurt: "It is our country you want! " and, though Milner tried to persuade him that it was not so, yet he was unconvinced. There was something horrible yet something intensely pathetic in seeing this fierce, relentless, ugly, hard, yet weary old man weeping openly and without restraint. He loved the Transvaal. He realised that bluff and threat would be no good. He was not dealing with Rhodes any more, but with the representative of a great Empire. Unless he gave away all that he honoured and treasured, and gave up his dream of a Dutch South Africa, he must fight. He realised that war was inevitable and he knew that, win or lose, his beloved country must go down through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.